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  • Mark 9:55 am on November 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    An Agenda for Digital Sociology 

    I see Digital Sociology as an open-ended integrative project, concerned to assemble the disparate strands of sociological engagement with digital technology within a more or less shared intellectual space: not in the sense of striving for unanimity but rather to ensure that disagreements at least tend to play out in terms which make the basis of intellectual disagreement clear and at least in principle leave all parties aware of the methodological and theoretical consequences which hinge upon them. In this sense, I advocate the need for what Nicos Mouzelis calls a theoretical lingua franca: “a flexible vocabulary with no foundationalist pretensions, which can help sociologists establish bridges between their own and other disciplines, as well as between competing social science paradigms” (pg. 9).

    My belief is that the initial work towards this end can be achieved through the assembly of divergent traditions with convergent interests within spaces conducive to ‘building bridges’: face-to-face, print and digital fora in which sociologists undertaking work that seeks to describe and/or explain the ‘digital’ in the broadest sense of the term enter into dialogue with one another. In such spaces, we have dialogical rather than dialectical interaction, such that as Richard Sennett describes it “through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another” rather than seeing disagreement as an obstacle to the achievement of common ground that must be overcome (pg. 19). Digital Sociology is both what emerges from these spaces and the assembly work required to ensure their success.

    The ‘theoretical lingua franca’ of Digital Sociology is something that has to be built up from within them as a hermeneutical project that seeks to elaborate upon the basis of agreement and disagreement. The point is not to overcome distinctions but rather to ensure that they “do not become dichotomtic essences” as Mouzelis puts it in his discussion of sociological theory more broadly (pg. 9). Through such conceptual work, we ensure the possibility of reclaiming those points of agreement which tend to get lost because scholarly debate frequently proceeds through the articulation of disagreements. In the most mundane sense possible: what are we trying to do? What is (digital) sociology for? There are likely to be disagreements here as well – for instance between those who argue for a “renewed interest in sociological description” (4.8) and those concerned to explain ‘why this is so rather than otherwise‘ – but there’s an enormous amount to be gained by entering into productive dialogue about the reasons for these disagreements e.g. perhaps an explanatory project for digital sociology is reliant upon the “renewed emphasis on good – critical, distinctive and thick – sociological descriptions of emergent digital phenomena” that Beer and Burrows advocate (1.1).

    The understanding of Digital Sociology I’m advocating is one which rejects intellectual provincialism. I like the account Pablo Boczkowski and Ignacio Siles offer of this as “a sort of intellectual insularity (or provincialism) that privileges a certain inwards-looking commitment to a particular paradigm, set of ideas, or mode of inquiry without considering work done in other fields that might significantly enrich or transform it”. Instead they argue for an intellectual cosmopolitanism that “promotes the crossing of territorial scholarly quadrants in the study of media technologies to rethink assumptions and normalized processes” (pg. 58). For Digital Sociology to be cosmopolitan in the sense would be for it to be proactively and openly engaged with the wide range of intellectual trends which could be referred to as a ‘digital turn’ (but probably shouldn’t be): digital humanities, digital anthropology, digital geography, social informatics, data studies, web science, data science, software studies, platform studies and game studies.

    However what distinguishes it from the “emerging, fundamentally transdisciplinary, computational literacy” of which Lev Manovich and others claim the existence is a conviction in the continued value of the intellectual resources carried within sociology as a discipline. It should be engaged with computationality but it shouldn’t be exhausted by it. To have a theoretical lingua franca, a multifaceted conceptual vocabulary through which ‘internal’ disagreements can be translated into the same intellectual topology, helps guard against this assimilation or exhaustion – by elaborating upon a language which is often tacit, it becomes easier to translate into the language of other disciplines and sub-disciplines in a way that’s both effective and minimises semantic loss. It allows distinct, though not necessarily compatible, elements of the sociological tradition to be articulated in relation to digital phenomena (e.g. the sociological imagination, structure and agency, critical reflexivity, self and society) and for novel insights and approaches found in other disciplines to be contextualised in terms of these intellectual resources. This avoids the tendency for substitution, in which an existing element is replaced with a novel one, instead facilitating combination in which existing elements and novel ones are combined in order to produce something new and distinctive (which can then in turn be contextualised in terms of more established intellectual resources).

    To advocate combination rather than substitution doesn’t entail intellectual stasis because existing intellectual resources are modified through this engagement with novelty – the point is to get beyond both substitutive and additive approaches to intellectual development. This applies as much within the discipline as beyond it. The methodological opportunities presented by digital data should be brought into dialogue with the existing theoretical resources of the discipline rather than taken as an occasion for their replacement. In doing so, we help avoid a preoccupation with (digital) technique by using an awareness of these new techniques for producing data about the social world as a basis upon which to enrich our understanding of the possibilities for description, explanation and intervention that our overall toolbox potentially affords. I see this as a case of expanding and refining the methodological repertoires of sociology rather than as anything which could be seen as a ‘new’ way of doing sociological research (even though some very new and innovative techniques may be incorporated into the aforementioned repertoires).

    One of many things I like about Deborah Lupton’s work on Digital Sociology is her appreciation of the many strands of activity woven into Sociology which have sought to engage with digital technology and its embedding in social life:  ‘cyber sociology’, ‘the sociology of the internet’, ‘e-sociology’, ‘the sociology of online communities’, ‘the sociology of social media’ and ‘the sociology of cyberculture’ etc (loc 309). Drawing these strands together within the integrative spaces of Digital Sociology helps illuminate what are distinctively sociological approaches to these phenomena that other disciplines also attend to: digital devices and their associated infrastructures, how they are shaped by their context & contribute to shaping it, the activities transformed & facilitated by them etc. The point is not to assert the superiority of sociological understanding but to bring it into dialogue with the insights and findings of other disciplines in a mutually enriching way. Another is Lupton’s focus on the digital transformation of professional practice (as just one form of activity transformed by digital technology). The context within which sociologists work is being transformed and this entails both challenges and opportunities – I see attempts to rethink sociological practice as an integral part of Digital Sociology: for instance Live Sociology and Punk Sociology.

    We need to avoid pursuing innovation for its own sake but nonetheless creatively explore the opportunities that digital devices offer for creating and communicating sociological knowledge differently (in the process overcoming the evaluation of the former as more important to the discipline than the latter). Partly this is a matter of Digital Scholarship by Sociologists but we should also be critical of the context in which these changes are being pursued, their constraints and enablements, the agendas subsumed into transformations later presented as inexorable (the ‘tsunamis’ and ‘avalanches’ of digital transformation). In this sense, I hope that Digital Scholarship by Sociologists leads to Digital Public Sociology but I think this requires work. My enthusiasm for digital engagement comes about because I think it offers opportunities to circumvent constraints of work within the academy, facilitating an open and engaged scholarship that avoids the axiomatic opposition of commitment and scholarship that was critiqued by Bourdieu, leading to greater participation within public life and collaboration with groups pursuing agendas of social amelioration outside the academy. It offers an opportunity to, as David Beer puts it, create a sociology which “will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world” and to deploy sociological knowledge in collective projects of achieving those alternative worlds.

    At the risk that this post grows ever longer, here’s a summary of what I’m suggesting should be included within Digital Sociology as an intellectual project:

    1. Building an online space for digital sociology within which debates can take place, announcements can be circulated and ideas can be shared. I suspect a group blog could serve this function, with a defined series of regular contributors and a process for applying to this contributing group to join the list, as well as an editorial process for accepting guest posts.
    2. Building a print space for digital sociology. By which I mean an open-access journal & so ‘print’ in a figurative sense really. Ideally it would be attached to the aforementioned online space in order to overcome some of the limitations inherent in academic journals. I think a book series would also be beneficial so that future monographs on digital sociology can be drawn into dialogue with one another.
    3. Building face-to-face spaces for digital sociology. A regular conference that brings digital sociologists together – ideally rotating internationally and digitally enhanced to the greatest possible extent given available funding. Also a regular conference that brings digital sociology into dialogue with cognate disciplines – I’m currently organising something on the ontology of digital technology (keep July 18th 2015 free!) that could provide a model for how this could work, albeit with an expanded remit. Also a regular seminar series that would incorporate both the inwards facing and outwards facing aspects suggested here – again digitally enhanced to overcome the geographical restrictions inherent in something like a seminar series.
    4. Identifying and disseminating innovations in sociological practice including but not limited to the generation and analysis of digital data. Using digital devices in any aspect of the research process – the possibilities, challenges and questions encountered through such applications. This goal could be incorporated within any of the three points suggested above in various ways (perhaps a more informal ‘show and tell’ format as well as more traditional training) as well as pursued separately through the production of digital training resources and the organisation of more traditional training workshops. I’d also include coding within this category – in the sense of formal training but also informal networks of people who are training themselves in their spare time.
    5. Conceptual work elucidating the multi-faceted language of digital sociology: the objects of digital sociology, the ontology of digital devices and infrastructures, the meta-theoretical ambitions of digital sociology. For instance the event mentioned above about the ontology of digital technology will (hopefully) serve this purpose, as is the work I’m starting on social media and social normativity that seeks to contextualise the claims made about social media in terms of existing frameworks within which sociologists have made claims about social change. These are just examples that reflect my own interests though & I think there are many forms this could take.
    6. Elaborating the methodological repertoires of digital sociology through high quality research into particular substantive topics that uses new techniques and forms of digital data to address important questions relating to digital devices and their associated infrastructures, how they are shaped by their context & contribute to shaping it, the activities transformed & facilitated by them etc.
    7. Creating an infrastructure for digital public sociology: running training, creating resources and developing networks that help us get good at doing public sociology (including though not limited to the utilisation of digital tools). Creating spaces which gather an audience (e.g. Sociological Imagination, Discover Society, The Society Pages) and facilitate interventions that are irregular yet still effective. These spaces also make it easier to get new projects off the ground.
  • Mark 9:55 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: early career researchers, , ,   

    CfP: Feminist Early Career Academics 

    This looks good:

    Please see below and attached a call for papers for an edited book entitled ‘Feminist Beginnings: Being an Early Career Feminist Academic in a Changing Academy’, to be edited by Dr Rachel Thwaites and Dr Amy Godoy-Pressland. Please circulate around your networks.

    In a fast-changing higher education academy, where marketisation is increasingly becoming the dominant model, the pressures on academics seem great, while the need to ‘play the game’ to succeed has never been more important.  Within this context, entering the academy as an early career academic presents many challenges, as well as possibilities.  Moving from the relative autonomy, and often bubble of safety, of the PhD into teaching or research contracts where there may be less flexibility and freedom within the institutional hierarchy, can be a real step change.  Early career academics also frequently face the prospect of working on fixed term contracts, with little security and no certain prospect of advancement, while constantly looking for the next contract.

    Being a feminist early career academic adds a further layer; how does one maintain one’s feminist identity and politics within what has traditionally been a very male-dominated institution where few women reach the most senior positions? Moreover the ethos of the marketising university where students are sometimes viewed as ‘customers’, may sit uneasily with a politics of equality for all.  Feminist values and practice can provide a means of working through the challenges, but may also bring complications. As feminist researchers and teachers ourselves, we feel the impact of trying to live out a feminist politics provides another set of priorities which affect the way one thinks about the everyday and overarching experience of an academic career.  This political outlook can lead to transformative events, but can also raise difficulties when in a non-feminist department or a research climate which does not take gender seriously.

    This edited volume will thus explore the early years of an academic career from a feminist perspective and should appeal to students and academics at all stages of their careers. We therefore welcome contributions which provide findings from research studies, theory pieces, and experiential/personal pieces.  The format of these is open to some interpretation and we will accept pieces of up to 3000 words for a personal piece and up to 8000 words for a theory/research paper on themes including, but not limited to:

    • Being a feminist in higher education
    • Moving from a women’s/gender studies centre into the wider academic community
    • Maintaining your feminist identity
    • Feminism in the curriculum and in the classroom
    • Negotiating the academic hierarchy as an early career feminist
    • Building a feminist support network
    • The academic ‘lifestyle’: how to be an ‘academic’

    We define ‘early career’ as those within five years of having been awarded their PhD and ‘higher education’ as any university setting.  We are actively seeking contributions which will provide a wide international perspective, however they must be written in English.

    To submit an abstract (300-400 words), or for any queries, please contact either

    Dr Rachel Thwaites, r.thwaites@bham.ac.uk  or Dr Amy Godoy-Pressland, a.godoy-pressland@uea.ac.uk

    Deadline for Abstracts: 5th December 2014 (decision to be made by 6th February 2015)

    Provisional date for full article: 7th September 2015

  • Mark 9:51 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    ‘Rank and Yank’ in Higher Education 

    From What about Me?: the struggle for identity in a market-based society by Paul Verhaeghe:

    Enron, an American multinational, introduced this practice at the end of the previous century, dubbing it the ‘Rank and Yank appraisal system’. The individual performances of its staff members were continually monitored and contrasted. On the basis of the results, one-fifth of its employees were sacked each year, but not before they had first been publicly humiliated by having their name, photo, and failure posted on the company website. It wasn’t long before total paranoia reigned and almost everyone was falsifying their figures. The widespread fraud led to a court case and the bankruptcy of the corporation. Despite that failure and the criminal practices associated with it, the Enron model is still in wide use. HR managers at multinationals are expected to apply the 20/70/10 rule. Twenty out of every hundred employees are the high flyers, seventy provide the critical mass, and ten should be given the boot, even if sufficient profit and growth has been achieved. Five minutes of Googling the search terms ‘Rank and Yank’ and ‘20/70/10 rule’ throws up hundreds of hits of company documents praising this approach, invariably referring to Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’.

    Within the span of a single generation, however, this situation changed dramatically, with the result that, nowadays, university staff, especially if they are young, feel that they have very little influence over their careers. Instead, they are compelled to dance to the music of an invisible administration. They work flat out, but don’t find their jobs satisfying. They no longer identify at all with the organisation, and solidarity among colleagues has largely disappeared. This is the academic version of the Rank and Yank system, and the consequences are the same: production continues to increase on paper; an atmosphere of personal frustration, envy, fear, and paranoia is created; and creativity is effectively stifled. Anything that doesn’t fit within rigid parameters doesn’t count anymore. Thinking out of the box — that precondition for innovation and discovery — has become impossible.

    Paradoxically enough, this quality-monitoring system fosters fraud, just as in the case of Enron, ranging from the Stapel affair in the Netherlands to the fraud with PhDs at German universities. (Not so long ago, a Dutch professor of social psychology, Diederik Stapel, was an authority in his field, renowned for his extensive empirical research and numerous publications in top journals. But his career came to an abrupt end when it turned out that he had fabricated and manipulated data on a massive scale. Nearly every newspaper found an explanation for such practices in the enormous pressure to publish, and the hyper-intense competition for jobs and promotion. In Germany in August 2009, mass fraud with doctoral titles came to light, in which various universities and hundreds of professors were involved.)

    My first thought when reading this was that this system hasn’t yet come to higher education and that it might still be avoided. However this evening I found myself thinking back to this case, in which David Browne, Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, suggested that even “academically brilliant” staff who damage the brand through “outspoken opinion” should be disciplined in order to set an example for the rest. For ‘Rank and Yank’ in Higher Education, perhaps even the “high flyers”, those who are valuable to the institution, aren’t safe unless they conform to a narrow range of behaviour consistent with the ‘brand’.

  • Mark 8:20 am on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The Relational Constitution of Collective Agency 

    In this paper Tom Brock and I argue that relationality is key to understanding the constitution of social movements: how do individuals ‘fuse’ into a collective? Our focus is on the relational bonds that emerge between participants, consolidated through situated action, in relation to which individuals come to value their reciprocal action towards a shared goal. If we ignore this relational dimension then collective agency can only be understood as the subsumption of the individual within the collective – participation is exhausted by hierarchical relations and participants surrender their evaluative capacities in the process:

    Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 08.10.44

    From Judge Dredd: Volume  5

    • Joseph De Lappe 10:56 am on November 28, 2014 Permalink

      Hi Mark – can you email me a copy of this – I can’t get it at the OU yet – ta Joe

  • Mark 8:46 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The Sociology of Civilizational Collapse 

    How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

    • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
    • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
    • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
    • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
    • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.


    Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

    I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

    That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

    I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

    There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

    I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

    In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

    the massive

    Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

    1. Antibiotic resistant infections
    2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
    3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
    4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
    5. The Surveillance state dystopia

    However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

    Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

    • Benjamin Geer 9:29 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      Sociology seems to be focused mainly on short-term phenomena, but civilisational collapse is a slow process. Similarly, sociology has had trouble dealing with history.

    • Mark 9:56 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I know many historical sociologists who would object to that statement! But I agree though.. I’m less sure about the ‘short-term’ thing – surely theories of modernity are long-term?

    • Benjamin Geer 10:30 am on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      Most of my own research has been historical sociology, and I’ve always felt it’s very marginal within the field of sociology. Sociologists and historians generally don’t seem to know or care much about each other’s work. Is there a theorist of modernity who actually displays a deep knowledge of history, particularly non-European history?

      An example: although Weber was basically a historical sociologist and devoted considerable effort to explaining the history of religion, contemporary sociology seems to have lost interest in this question. Here I explored some possible reasons for this change:


      If there really is a sociology of civilizational collapse, I’d love to know about it.

    • Mark 5:21 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I agree but I think the reasons for that are intellectual s much anything else – the concern for diagnosing the grand sweep of history, elucidating epochal shifts, licensing a lazy detachment from historical detail. Though I’m talking about Beck, Bauman et al here more than anyone else.

    • Kelly Nielsen 6:39 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      I wonder if Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s new book gets at what you’re thinking about here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/science/naomi-oreskes-imagines-the-future-history-of-climate-change.html?_r=0

    • Mark 8:52 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      it looks excellent – thanks!

    • Benjamin Geer 6:27 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink

      While theory should rise above details, the problem is that sociologists who make novel, ambitious claims about history, without doing the historical research necessary to back up those claims, are likely to reach wrong conclusions. Ulrich Beck’s claims about ‘risk society’ — the idea that in the past couple of generations, people have acquired new attitudes towards systemic risk — seem to be an example of this. Historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz found that that the attitudes Beck considers recent were actually widespread in the 18th century. I think sociologists who want to theorise about long-term phenomena should do historical research themselves. In other words, they should be historical sociologists.

    • Mark 7:38 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink

      I find that very convincing!

    • Yannick Rumpala 9:44 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      Science fiction is in fact very diverse and you can find there a large range of representations of collapse.

    • Mark 9:59 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      I’m not saying there aren’t!

    • Mark 10:01 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      But any recommendations are appreciated – I am saying that representations of collapsed societies are much more common than representations of the *process* of collapse. I have no idea if this is just a feature of what I happen to have come across.

    • Yannick Rumpala 10:30 am on December 12, 2014 Permalink

      Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak and Depression or Bust by Mack Reynolds are for example interseting variations. But you are right.

    • Mark 3:41 pm on December 13, 2014 Permalink

      cheers, will look them up now!

  • Mark 11:44 pm on November 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , mario,   

    Super Mario Hurting People 


    There’s a whole youtube genre of Mario videos – my generation’s ‘cognitive surplus’?

  • Mark 9:50 pm on November 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The Blues, Mary 

    I learned how to hammer in the burning August sun
    I learned how to lie and cheat, how to steel and just how to run
    I fell asleep most nights with somebody else’s blood on my tongue,
    Your tongue
    You learned just how to run

    But it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you

    You learned how to cry in them lonesome September nights
    I learned to get by with the dogs and the dirt and the charm of the street
    I fell asleep most nights with your pictures right behind my eyes,
    Your eyes
    The killer and the victim arrive, right at the same time

    But it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you
    And it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you

    The cause for smile, is bright like the ramparts on the 4th of July
    And my baby swings like a boxer, and sends her right hooks onto my chin
    She cries like a baby (cries like a baby)
    And she wears me just like a ring
    Cries like a baby (cries like a baby)
    And she wears me just like a ring

    Learned how to swagger
    I Learned how to hold you while your body burned
    I Learned how compromise while this whirlwind hurricane turned
    We fell asleep most nights with each other’s blood on our tongues,
    My love
    Did you ever just have enough

    But it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you
    And it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you
    And it’s just the blues, Mary the blues
    Swirling around my head like your dreams in Dorothy’s shoes
    I’m somewhere over the rainbow for you

  • Mark 9:48 pm on November 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The temporal horizons of sociology 

    I just came across a passage by James Meek in which he describes being drawn to,

    the obscure realm of events that are too fresh for history, but too old for journalism; the murky gap of popular perception that covers the period from two years ago to about twenty-five years back, in which events are well remembered but patterns not easily perceived.

    I’m struck by the realisation that so much of the sociology I’ve been drawn to (Giddens on late modernity, Bauman on liquid modernity, Castells on the information age, Rosa on social acceleration etc) similarly concerns itself with this ‘murky gap’ between current affairs and historical inquiry. It’s also the domain of ‘contemporary history’ but I’m drawn to social theoretical engagements because of their concern to discern those patterns “not easily perceived” in spite of the manifold inadequacies which characterise these bodies of work. Perhaps those inadequacies stem at least in part from the ‘murkiness’ inherent in this gap?

  • Mark 2:43 pm on November 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: para academics,   

    Saturday 6 December – Para-Academic Handbook Launch in London, UK 

    A worthy cause:

    Saturday 6 December – Para-Academic Handbook Launch in London, UK
    6.30pm start at Housman’s Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London N1 9DX
    £3 entry redeemable against the purchase of any book in-store.
    ‘Academia is dying, and in the process compulsively crushes the desires for learning, creating, teaching, cooperating it claimed to foster’, Isabelle Stengers writes as endorsement for The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, a unique collection exploring the margins of contemporary academia.
    The Para-Academic Handbook collects global perspectives of people who feel connected, in different ways, to the practice of para-academia.
    Specialists in all manner of things, from the humanities to the social and biological sciences, the para-academic works alongside the traditional university, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice, usually a mixture of both.
    This event is an opportunity to discuss the perils, possibilities and necessities of para-academic practice. It will explore how alternatives to the marketised university can not only be sustained, but also flourish.
    Join editors Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, as well as contributors Charlotte Cooper and Alexandra M Kokoli, to discuss para-academia and its dis-contents.
    This will event will be of interest to:
    • academics on short-term, associate, precarious contracts and their allies who want to connect with others in similar situations;
    • Students who may be concerned that the bulk of their expensive university education is being delivered by insecure, often stressed and unhappy lecturers who are treated by institutions as nothing other than a ‘human resource’;
    • People who want to create alternative time-spaces where thinking, learning and knowledge exchange can happen independent of instrumental, market-driven interests.
    ‘Learning, Transforming, Technique: A Weekend to Explore Transformative Educational Practices’, Drefach Felindre, April 10-13, 2015
  • Mark 7:59 am on November 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: emerging adults, millenials, necessity of selection, ,   

    Evading the necessity of selection 

    In her The Reflexive Imperative, Margaret Archer presents an idea she terms the necessity of selection: the necessity of selecting from the options available to us. These options are always structurally and culturally circumscribed, albeit to wildly varying degrees, however they remain options. The nature of our ‘selections’ vary wildly but they are always a matter of discriminating between possibilities. If we accept that selection in this sense is an unavoidable challenge we encounter biographically then we can begin to look for trends in how this challenge is met or evaded. For instance I think ‘everythingism’ is a (privileged) attempt to evade the necessity of selection and reading the comments on the original Guardian article gives an entirely anecdotal basis for speculating that it is a trend. This interesting article about Millennials and Sex perhaps suggests another trend in how people are coming to evade the necessity of selection:

    Instead, Kristina hopes to graduate and spend a few more years playing the field before getting married. In the process, she says, she hopes she never has to go on an actual date. “I’m obsessed with wedding crap, like I Pin wedding stuff all the time, and I love [celebrity-wedding planner] David Tutera and Say Yes to the Dress. Like, I’m obsessed with the idea of getting married, but I want to skip the dating part and just know who I’m going to marry.” She believes hookup culture might actually make this possible for her generation. “We’ll be so experienced in all the people that we don’t want, when we find the person who we do want, it’s just going to happen.”


    I think the ‘necessity of selection’ is a very useful concept to help make sense of this approach to intimate life. To reject the ‘necessity of selection’ in this sphere would be to reject the underlying premise of long term monogamous partnership as stated here (though this would in turn intensify the necessity of selection in other aspects of her life). However she is “obsessed with the idea of getting married”: she intends to select in this way but hopes to avoid the difficulty of selection by embracing variety prior to this. I guess what I’m interested in here is the way in which any middle ground between ‘playing the field’ and ‘getting married’ drops out of the picture. My point is not that there’s something intrinsically necessary about this ‘middle ground’ but rather that the preoccupation with the commitment of marriage sits uneasily with a desire to “just know who I’m going to marry”. What’s lost are the ambiguities, uncertainties and fallibility that are entailed by any such commitment: a present refusal of selection is juxtaposed to a future embrace of selection. Obviously this is just a quote from a magazine article but I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to emerging adulthood and how realist sociology can help explain some of the tendencies that have been identified in terms of the romantic and sexual lives of millennials. I think the necessity of selection could be a very useful concept to make sense of these trends, rooted as it is in a broader theory of social change, however I’m still at a very early stage of thinking this through. This is how Margaret Archer describes the process of selection in the face of variety in The Reflexive Imperative: 

    Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

    One of the themes I discussed in my PhD data was the manner in which young adults embrace variety in an attempt to equip themselves to select from variety. Obviously they don’t use this terminology to describe or think about their own behaviour. The behavioural trajectories I mean are commonly referred to with phrases like “working out what I want”, “finding out what matters to me”, “working out who I am”. The most obvious manifestation of it is the inclination to move contexts in the absence of any specific intentions: desperately seeking something ‘new’ without being able to articulate what it is they’re looking for. If we expose ourselves to variety, exploring different possibilities of what to do and who to be, it becomes easier to actually select from these possibilities in the manner necessary to shape a life. That at least is the plan. In practice, it can have the opposite effect, as these patterns of movement have implications for the spatial distribution of variety and the embrace of variety can multiply awareness of the available options (or confront them with unavailable options) even as it better equips an individual to choose from them (or entrenches awareness of the constraints upon their choice). I’d like to work with a very specific theme, like sexual & romantic partnering, in order to help flesh out this analysis because at present it’s still much woolier than I would like it to be. This would also help refine the concepts of necessity of selection and the need to shape a life in terms of one very specific aspect of that life:

    Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

  • Mark 11:53 am on November 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    An introduction to blogging and twitter for social researchers 

    You can book online here.

    Given the increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of social research, it is inevitable that researchers are looking towards the opportunities offered by social media. This one day course offers an accessible introduction to the use of blogging and twitter, encompassing the possibilities they offer for social researchers and walking you through best practice.

    You will learn through a combination of presentations, informal discussions and practical sessions, including pre-course reading.

    Course content covers:

    • An introduction to blogging
    • An introduction to twitter
    • Making an impact with blogging and twitter
    • Integrating blogging and twitter into your working life

     Who is it aimed at?

    This is an entry level course, which assumes no familiarity with blogging or twitter.

    You will find this course useful if you:

    • conduct social research
    • have responsibility for impact and public engagement
    • communicate findings to policymakers and practitioners

    Learning outcomes:

    By the end of the programme you will be able to:

    • understand the characteristics of blogging and micro-blogging
    • get started in a practical and engaged way with Twitter and WordPress formulate your own strategic plan to use these services effectively
    • connect effectively with others online in a way which serves these ends measure the impact of your online engagement
    • participate enjoyably in the emerging academic blogosphere and twittersphere
  • Mark 9:54 am on November 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    On the Street Where you Live: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy 

    This looks really interesting:

    ‘On the Street Where you Live’: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy

    BSA Bourdieu Study Group Event

    Tuesday 2nd December 2014

    Key Note Speakers:  Dr Paul Watt (Birkbeck) Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmith) Dr Tracey Jensen (UEL) Dr Simon Harding (Middlesex University) and Stephen Crossley (Durham)

    The relations between the social world and urban space have been of interest to sociologists since the Chicago School’s human ecology tradition. In today’s globalised world, urbanisation is increasingly manifesting itself in people’s everyday lives, expressed through the diverse social, cultural and political space in which class, cultural and gender differences are continuously produced, contested and reworked. The move towards austerity in UK government’s fiscal policy, the weakening of state planning for urban growth and changes in residences from state property to private property has resulted in escalating house prices and the gentrification of traditionally ‘no go’ areas for the middle-class.  Social divisions and sociocultural relationships are becoming ever more spatially generated.

    In Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984) survey data was gathered in Paris, Lille and an unspecified agricultural town. However, Distinction focused on social class and the spatial dispositions and relation to the ‘cosmopolitan metropolis’ habitus of Paris – as major global city – was unexplored (Butler, 2002). Nevertheless, Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of distinction as a relation of social differences is useful in analysing socio-spatial hierarchy of neighbourhoods as well as the wider processes of segregation along preconceived lines of ‘race’, ethnicity, religion or social class.

    Over the last decade urban studies have increasingly drawn on Bourdieusian theory to examine the practices and trajectories of individuals and classes in an urban setting. This event will bring together participants for discussion and debates on socio-spatial stratification on an increasingly middle-class city as well as social exclusion of  the inner-city working classes and the usefulness of Bourdieu’s theory in analysing these issues.


    9.15-9.45 Registration and Refreshments Introduction
    10.00-11.15 Key Note: Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmith) Place-making? Middle-class residential choice, trajectories and dynamics.
    11.15-11.30 Comfort Break

    11.30-13.30 Panel Key Notes:

    Dr Tracey Jensen (UEL) A Good School and a Decent Cup of Coffee: connecting the mundane desires of parental gentrifiers to the politics of displacement

    Stephen Crossley (Durham) ‘Looking at the family from the inside out’: social space and symbolic power in the Troubled Families Programme.

    Dr Simon Harding (Middlesex University) The Street Casino: Survival in violent street Gangs (London Street Gangs using Bourdieu)

    13.30-14.30 Lunch
    14.30-15.45 Key Note: Dr Paul Watt (Birkbeck) ‘On the Street Where You Won’t be Living for Much Longer’: What Bourdieu Can and Cannot Offer Urban Studies’
    15.45-16.15 Refreshment Break

    16.15-17.15 Workshop Discussions

    Workshop One: Dr Michaela Benson

    Workshop Two: Dr Paul Watt

    Workshop Three: Dr Tracey Jensen and Stephen Crossley

    17.15-17.30 Closing Remarks

    This event costs £28 for BSA student members, £33 for BSA-members and £43 for non BSA members.

    Refreshments and lunch are included

    Early booking is recommended as we anticipate this to be a popular event. There will be 30 places available.

    The event will take place at the BSA meeting room in Imperial Wharf London

    To register for this event please go to the BSA events site

    For further info contact: events@britsoc.org.uk  or (0191) 383 0839

    For academic queries contact: Jenny Thatcher: u0933657@uel.ac.uk

    For more info about the BSA Bourdieu Study Group: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/studygroups/bourdieu.aspx

  • Mark 9:16 am on November 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: attainment, digital anthropology, , , , ,   

    Technology and Human Nature 

    In their Webcam, Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan offer what they describe as a theory of attainment. While I’m not sure they’d accept my terminology, I read this as an attempt to theorise the causal powers of technology in relation to the causal powers of human beings. They start by recognising that “people have relationships with people and they have relationships with technology, and, mostly, we can’t really disentangle the two” (pg. 3) before turning to the question of how we should theorise this entanglement. Their approach resonates with me because their intention is non-conflationary – though they don’t use this term – in the sense that they see understanding the entanglement as necessitating that we understand the respective characteristics of the entities that are ‘tangled up’. In this sense, it preempts work I’d intended to do looking at tendencies towards conflation in theorising the relationship between human beings and technology: upwards conflation (social constructivism), downwards conflation (technological determinism) and central conflation (sociomateriality and co-evolution). Their account begins negatively, taking aim at what they see as a dominant tendency to juxtapose the novel meditations entailed by new technology with our putatively unmediated former state:

    Any new media is first experienced as an additional and problematic mediation to our lives. We can’t help but contrast it with some imagined conversation between two people standing in a field as representing the original, unmediated and natural form of communication. A technology, by contrast, is always regarded as something artificial that imposes itself between the conversationalists and mediates that conversation. (pg. 5)

    This licenses the nostalgia and despair for what’s lost that can be seen in the work of someone like Sherry Turkle, in which the (umediated) world of face-to-face relationships has been replaced by the (mediated) world of digital connections. From an anthropological standpoint however “there are no unmeditated, pure relationships” (pg. 3) to be dissolved by digital communications. There has always been material culture and, it follows from this, human relationships have never been exhausted by other human beings. Nonetheless, they seek to acknowledge that people do change in relation to technology but not in a way that can be described as becoming ‘more or less human’ (with the weirdly zero-sum relation between humanity and technology which that implies). Their concern is “to find a means of understanding the impact of new technologies that allows us to consider these as radical changes in consciousness and other basic modes of life, but without this being seen as either an increase or decrease in our essential humanity” (pg. 11).

    Their theory of attainment seeks to do this by accounting for “how technology becomes an ordinary aspect of being routinely human” (pg. 13). They begin from the observation that “people who have access to a new media are at first usually concerned to use this technology to facilitate things they already had been trying to do, but had up to then been thwarted by the lack of means” (pg. 11): their focus is on ‘latency’, the situational frustrations, which can be found within any group. Technological innovation should be understood in terms of the “situation of incompleteness with respect to what we want to be or do” which invariably characterises the human condition (pg. 11). New technologies initially facilitate things people wanted to do but couldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t easily due to constraints entailed by prior analogues – with these inclinations predating the utilisation of the technology for things people didn’t know they wanted to do. Their interest is in when these technologies cease to be seen as innovations, facilitating frustrated desires before offering unimagined possibilities, instead becoming part of our background understanding of what it is to be human:

    It is the next phase, when this facility becomes the merely taken-for-granted condition of what people simply assume as an integral aspect of who they are, which is the realisation of what we are calling attainment. The ability to write is a mark of attainment because we now tend to view those without that ability as though they lacked some fundamental property of being an ordinary human. Originally writing was an achievement, but by now it is considered a necessary condition. For many people, being able to type on a computer, or to drive a car, or speak on a telephone has become a similar mark of attainment. Webcam will serve as an example of this process because of the sheer speed with which it passes from an ideal we had aspired to, to a mundane technology we taken for granted. (pg. 12)

    This account conceives of technology as facilitating latent capacities of human beings. As I understand it, they offer the notion of ‘an attainment’ as a way to conceptualise those capacities which rely upon a technological apparatus that we now take for granted: our technological innovations realise latent capacities and, in doing so, change what it is to be human but in a way that recognises this capacity for change as something intrinsic to humanity. This implies “a kind of latency in the human condition, but not merely a litany of pre-given imagined abilities planted in evolutionary time and then coming into being with new technology” (pg. 14):

    There was no gene for writing that was frozen until the invention of the pen. Technology in and of itself transforms capacity and changes what human beings can do or can be envisaged as doing. The last of the four stages defined by Miller and Slater in examining technological change, which was called the expansive potential, concerns those aspirations that can only now be imagined thanks to these developments. Technology creates as well as realises latency. (pg. 15)

    This theory of attainment offers a framework for analysing the trajectories through which technological innovations are adopted and how the adopters change in the process. It can be usefully applied to the study of individual cases or to much wider social units. This is a view of humanity “that incorporates its own potential for change” (pg. 12) and I think this is crucial: it avoids a view of infinite plasticity, where we are reshaped by technical tools, but also one of inert quiddity, where we remain stubbornly resistant to technologically induced change. It recognises the properties of technology, without leading us into the trap of either seeing the uses to which a technology is put as intrinsic to the technology or as irrelevant to the technology. 

  • Mark 5:50 pm on November 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply

    CfP: Queering Paradigms 

    SECOND CALL FOR PAPERS: Queering Paradigms 6

    Deadline extension: New deadline 30 November 2014.

    After an exciting and highly productive five year journey through four continents, the Queering Paradigms conference will visit its point of origin again in its sixth incarnation. Queering Paradigms 6 is planned to be held in South England 20-25 July 2015.

    Queering the academic conference format, QP6 will be hosted at two places: at the University of Winchester and at the other end of the pilgrims’ way, at QP’s birth place at Canterbury Christ Church University.  QP6 part-merges with VariAbilit(ies) II (questioning the dis/abled binary), organised by Chris Mounsey (chris.mounsey@winchester.ac.uk) to form a conference continuum, variably the “same only different”. A rest/sightseeing/travel day is included in the combined schedule:

    20 July 2015        VariAbilit(ies) II, University of Winchester
    21 July 2015        Queering Paradigms 6 & VariAbilit(ies) II, University of Winchester
    22 July 2015        REST/TRAVEL/SIGHTSEEING DAY
    23 July 2015        Queering Paradigms 6    & VariAbilit(ies) II, Canterbury Christ Church University
    24 July 2015        Queering Paradigms 6, Canterbury Christ Church University
    25 July 2015        Queering Paradigms 6: Emerging scholar’s day, Centre for Gender, Sexuality & Writing, University of Kent at Canterbury

    The combined conferences focus on the main theme of

    Ethics Beyond Troubling: Towards Queer(ed) (Vari)Ability.

    The QP6 conference aims to establish a multidisciplinary and bi- (or multi)- locational discourse around the possibility, challenges and potential of Intersectional Post/Queer Ethics and Practices beyond subversion and troubling.  In addition, papers from all disciplines and methodologies concerned with queer life, culture and practices will add to the multi-/trans-/inter-disciplinary workshop style discourse of listening and learning, which characterizes the QP project.

    We invite submissions of proposals from all angles of queering; and in particular from the area of Post/Queer(ed) Ethics (Applied or Theoretical) intersecting with, troubling and transcending (paradigms in) Health, Psychology, Special Needs Education and Disability Studies. Further intersections could include age; race/ethnicity; socio-economic status; religion/faith/irreligion.

    Paper (poster) abstracts and panel proposals are invited by 30 November 2014. Please send to Prof. B. Scherer, CCCU (b.scherer@canterbury.ac.uk). Paper abstracts should be around 300 words long and include an indication whether the paper is intended to be an original (unpublished and not under review) contribution to the QP6 book, to be published 2016 with Peter Lang, Oxford (containing 16-20 chapters). Full papers are expected to be submitted by 1 May 201

  • Mark 10:25 am on November 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , social analytics,   

    Social analytics as an agenda for digital sociology 

    What Nick Couldry says here is a pleasingly precise statement of what I’ve been trying to articulate when writing vague statements like the “distinctively sociological sensibility which is marginalised by computational social science”:

    The starting-points for a hermeneutics of the social world are, in key ways, being transformed by big data and by the embedding of algorithmic calculation in the everyday, and we need a new type of social research to address this. I call this research ‘social analytics’: that is, the study of how social actors are themselves using analytics – data measures of all kinds, including those they have developed or customized – to meet their own ends, for example, by interpreting the world and their actions in new ways. As Jannis Kallinikos (2009) points out, data only becomes information when it is interpreted, when it passes through hermeneutics. In a world that is starting to be shaped by the myth of big data, ‘social analytics’ tracks alternative projects of self- knowledge, group knowledge, institutional knowledge – whose ends are not  the tracking of data for its own sake, or even for profit, but for broader social,  civic, cultural or political goals. It also tracks people’s practices of resisting the  introduction of analytics-based tools as default forms of management or  evaluation. Conversely, it tracks those who are using analytics, even big data, to build new forms of civic and social action, for example to govern cities.


  • Mark 10:08 am on November 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    The myth of ‘us’ in a digital age 

    In his A necessary disenchantment: myth, agency and injustice in a digital worldNick Couldry argues that transitions in media infrastructure are facilitating the emergence of a new myth of collectivity:

    A new myth about the collectivities we form when we use platforms such as Facebook. An emerging myth of natural collectivity that is particularly seductive, because here traditional media institutions seem to drop out altogether from the picture: the story is focused entirely on what ‘we’ do naturally, when we have the chance to keep in touch with each other, as of course we want to do.


    This is coming to replace an older sense of media as the point of access to the centre of society. The reliance on media organisations to access flows of content helped constitute an understanding of centre and periphery, with the media facilitating access to the (mythical) centre of value, knowledge and meaning for the majority who experienced themselves as peripheral to it. The rapid diffusion of the internet, mobile computing and social networking engenders a new form of mediation, by ‘us’ rather than content producing media organisations, which helps shatter this previous myth of the ‘mediated centre’ and substitute it with a vision of human networks, animated by natural sociability, dispersed across national boundaries. As I understand Couldry’s argument, the power of this new myth derives in part from its displacement of the old: once our reliance on the old media organisations is seen to be shattered, our sociality is unbound, revealing a naturally co-operative inclination towards discussion, creation and sharing (see for example Clay Shirky’s theory of ‘cognitive surplus’). Obviously, the perception is erroneous and it serves vested interests: media organisations haven’t ceased to be party to communication, either in the sphere of content-production or facilitating communication, it’s only that their role has shifted with a change in the logic of their competition. This obfuscation serves the interests of platform providers in particular, as they drift towards being seen solely in terms of the provision of infrastructure rather than as corporate actors with increasingly vast lobbying operations.

    Couldry’s concern is that “we must be wary when our most important moments of ‘coming together’ seem to be captured in what people happen to do on platforms whose economic value is based on generating just such an idea of natural collectivity”. Social media platforms present themselves as providing new enablements for and eliminating old constraints upon ‘natural collectivity’: their business model simultaneously relies upon monetizing the crowd which they have encouraged to gather, profiling behaviour in a manner susceptible to inference and allowing the growing data mining industry to do further work to this end. Their concern becomes less a matter of reaching as many people with adverts as possible (on occasions of mass attention driven by shared spectacle) but reaching the right people all the time. This is why ‘big’ data analytics are so tied up in the broader transformation of the media: the process itself demands innovation in order to extract the value it promises to generate. However this genuine computational challenge, as well as the economic interests which partly drive it, stand obscured behind the ‘myth of big data’ which Couldry takes aim at:

    Myth works, as I’ve often argued following Maurice Bloch (1989) and Roland Barthes (1972), through ambiguity: through sometimes claiming to offer ‘truth’ and at other times to be merely playful, providing what, in the George W. Bush era, was called ‘plausible deniability’, but here at the level of claims about knowledge claims! So Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, on the one hand, say big data bring ‘an  essential enrichment in human comprehension’ (2013: 96). They go further, proposing a large project of ‘datafication’ that involves quantifying every  aspect of everyday phenomena to enable big data analysts to find its hidden order: the result will be ‘a great infrastructure project’ like Diderot’s 18th- century encyclopaedia: ‘this enormous treasure chest of datafied information . . . once analysed, will shed light on social dynamics at all levels, from the individual to society at large’ (2013: 93–94, emphasis added). The world too will look different: ‘we will no longer regard our world as a string of happenings that we explain as a natural or social phenomenon, but as a universe comprised essentially of information’ (2013: 96, emphasis added). On the other hand, when the moral consequences of acting on the basis of ‘big data’ arises – for example, arresting people for offences they are predicted to commit but haven’t yet – they back off and say that big data only provide probabilities, not actualities, and worry about ‘fetishizing the output of our [data] analysis’ (2013: 151)


    It’s the final points which will be so crucial to understanding the trajectory of ‘big data’ in a social world rapidly acclimatising itself to these forms of intervention. The mythical sociability of ‘us’ stands in sharp contrast to the quantity and quality of the interventions we are potentially susceptible to in virtue of our participation in (digitised) social life: we stand exposed, fragmented and scrutinised before a diffuse and inscrutable power. Under these circumstances might we come to cling to the myth more tightly than ever for the security it provides? As Couldry points out in relation to big data, “we too are involved in its reproduction, supplying information (to government and countless other collectors, including social media platforms) about what we do, as we do it, allowing that information to supplant other possible types of information about ourselves, what we say, and how we reflect”. He goes on to call for an ethical engagement with these questions and the implications that they have for the social order:

    The CEO of a big-data-based sentiment analysis company, sounds reasonable when he says that ‘if we’re right 75% to 80% of the time, we don’t care about any single story’ (quoted Andrejevic, 2013: 56). 4 . 4 But if the big data model works by equating our only forms of social knowledge with such probabilities, then we have already started organizing things so that the single story – your story,my story – really doesn’t matter. That raises fundamental questions about individual voice, and the way voice is valued in our societies.


    He doesn’t develop the point but it strikes me there’s a contradiction between the myth of ‘us’ and the myth of big data which could provide a focal point for resistance. In reality, the networked ‘us’ makes ‘big data’ possible. However symbolically, the reality of big data serves to negate the imagined promise of the ‘us’: can we reclaim an impulse towards networked sociality and co-operation in a way that resists corporate capture? Could the very force of the myth of ‘us’ be something that can be drawn upon to mobilise resistance to a world in which, as Couldry puts it, “corporate interests and the state seek to know us through big data”?

  • Mark 7:13 pm on November 7, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , sexual change, , ,   

    The decoupling of sex and romance 

    If we accept this account then we can see the ‘sexual revolution’ as constituting a decoupling of sex from commitment. Can we read the emergence of asexuality as a parallel decoupling of commitment from sex?

    “The really big change in sexual practices among young Americans occurred with the Baby Boomer generation, that is the move toward premarital sex,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies sexuality. This change was followed by “the move in the Sixties and the Seventies to having sex before a relationship was really fully committed. That big move happened with the parents of the people who are now in college, basically.” And those college kids are now pushing the trend further to today’s standard in which commitment and emotional connection of any sort are both unnecessary precursors to sex.


  • Mark 8:06 am on November 7, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    10 political cliches that make me want to smash my radio 

    1. Hard working families
    2. Difficult decisions
    3. Grown up discussions
    4. Playing politics
    5. Real people
    6. Real jobs
    7. There’s no money left in the kitty
    8. Open for business
    9. UK PLC
    10. Vision
    • Martyn 8:38 am on November 7, 2014 Permalink

      Team GB

    • Martyn 8:40 am on November 7, 2014 Permalink

      Out of the box
      Across the piste

    • annikacoughlin 12:36 pm on November 7, 2014 Permalink

      I also hate ‘ordinary people’.

    • Mark 12:46 pm on November 7, 2014 Permalink

      I like all of these!

      It was the phrase “team labour” that set me off this morning.

    • Jessica 5:41 pm on November 17, 2014 Permalink

      ‘The taxpayer’

    • Ian Martyn (@IBMartyn) 12:56 pm on November 21, 2014 Permalink

      I wonder what ‘unreal people’ look like – politicians perhaps?

    • chillhoursblog 7:15 am on May 11, 2017 Permalink

      very nice article

  • Mark 8:45 pm on November 6, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The intellectual legitimacy of academic blogging 

    One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by the philosopher Daniel Little, it covers a diverse range of topics across the social sciences while continually coming back to a number of core theoretical questions that fascinate me. Reflecting on its seventh anniversary, Little offers some interesting thoughts on the role that academic blogging plays in his own intellectual life:

    This week marks the seventh anniversary of Understanding Society. That’s 954 posts, almost a million words, and about a hundred posts in the past twelve months. The blog continues to serve as an enormously important part of my own intellectual life, permitting me to spend a few hours several times a week on topics of continuing interest to me, without needing to find the time within my administrative life to try to move a more orderly book manuscript forward. And truthfully, I don’t feel that it is faut de mieux or second-best. I like the notion that it’s a kind of “open source philosophy” — ideas in motion. In my view, this is an entirely legitimate primary way of contributing to philosophy and sociology.


    He also makes some interesting suggestions about the future of academic blogging that are informed by his own experience. In the last couple of years I’ve been settling into a view of my blog as my main outlet for developing my ideas, feeding into formal publications as occupational necessity and/or personal passion dictate – in fact the blog has helped me come to terms with the fact that the former and the latter may not always coincide. It’s interesting to see how Daniel Little experiences his blogging because it contrasts in some ways with my own – I share the experience of it being often ‘more creative and less laboured’ but I’m certain it’s much less rigorous, at least in the narrow sense of being carefully constructed. What I do on my blog often amounts to a form of free writing – I’m interested to see if this will change over time. I think Little offers a compelling account of the intellectual legitimacy of blogging and it’s actually left me wondering if I should try and be more careful and selective about my own writing online:

    What I would really like to see in the future is a more porous membrane between academic blogging and academic publishing. There is no reason why the arguments and debates that are presented within an academic blog should not enter directly into engagement with formal publication — specialists writing about mechanisms, explanation, or historiography might well want to engage in their published work with the ideas and arguments that are developing in the online world of academic blogging. For example, I think the series of exchanges among Kaidesoja, Elder-Vass, Hartwig, Cruickshank, and Ruth Groff in Understanding Society in December and January make a substantive addition to debates within the field of critical realism. It would make sense for other specialists to take these sources into account in their published work.

    I suppose many scholars would look at blog entries as “working notes” and published articles as “archival” and final, more authoritative and therefore more suitable for citation and further discussion. But I’m not sure that’s the right way of thinking about the situation. When I compare the intellectual work process I undertook in writing Varieties of Social Explanation or Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science with the care and concentration I give a blog post, I would say that the latter is just as rigorous and often more creative; less labored, more willing to lay out a new idea quickly. So speaking as a focus group of one, I would say I’m more satisfied with the quality of thinking and presentation I’ve conveyed in the blog than in the books I’ve published.


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